Lagertha takes Ragnar’s arm when he slams his way off the tour bus and steers him firmly down a street. “He is fucking us over,” says Ragnar, following her push. She was looking something up on her phone in the last few minutes of the meeting, so she must have a destination in mind. “You didn’t have anything to say about it?”
“You said everything I wanted to.” She shrugs. “And it’s done now. Not really Thyri’s fault, even, that her father found her a break into fame. I’ll miss the babysitting, the children will have to stay up for gigs now unless Siggy decides to help.”
“And the fact that we’re left without an opening act until Haraldson decides to find a new one?”
“He won’t let it go too long. And I think Siggy is on our side, she looked like she wanted to stab him for signing Thyri over to that agent.” Lagertha is angry, Ragnar knows her well enough to recognize that by the way her fingertips dig into his arm, but she’s making a show of being calm. “Floki has friends in LA, doesn’t he?”
“Not our kind of music.” They aren’t big enough, glamorous enough for LA. He should have been more suspicious when Haraldson said they were stopping in for a few days to play at a few bars. “He won’t even let us stay for auditions, I’ll bet. Just wanted to get his daughter her contract and—”
“You said it all already. You have to be calmer before we break the news to Rollo and Floki, or they will actually kill him.” Lagertha turns them around another corner and then gestures across the street, to a patch of green and some trees, a tiny park. She knows he likes to get out into nature when he’s angry, and this is the closest the city provides. He gives her a kiss on the cheek and she rolls her eyes. “Go on, commune with nature or something, Rollo will be back from spoiling Bjorn and Gyda rotten eventually and we have to tell them their babysitter’s gone off to be a movie star.”
Ragnar crosses the street (getting honked at by someone even though he’s got the right of way) and Lagertha follows a little slower, just getting there when he sits on the ground next to one of the bigger trees and leans back against it, counting breaths until he can see past the urge to strangle Haraldson for endangering their tour this way. He’s always had his own interests in mind as their manager, but this borders on self-sabotage as well, even if it is for his daughter’s sake.
The park is noisy from the sounds of cars passing by too near, but Ragnar stays slumped on the grass anyway with Lagertha sitting next to him going through something on her phone and sometimes watching someone walking by their tree. It’s a busy little park, people coming on their lunch breaks or with their dogs, and Lagertha likes people-watching, so neither of them will get restless fast.
It takes Ragnar longer than it should to pick out the sounds of music coming from somewhere nearby.
The first thing he notes is that it’s a banjo, when he hasn’t heard one in at least five hundred miles, and even then not frequently. The thought of a banjo in LA is somehow absurd, but whoever’s playing is good, picking fast and clean. He’s singing too, though that travels less easily, some bluegrass cover of a song Ragnar’s mother used to listen to on their record player, one by the Byrds. It’s just a little twang, enough to remind Ragnar of home, and he props himself up on his elbows to listen better.
Lagertha notices sometime around then, tilting her head as the singer pauses for a minute, voice fading into the noise of the city, before coming back in with “Wayfaring Stranger,” a better cover of it than Ragnar is expecting from a busker in an out-of-the-way park in LA. She comes in on the chorus, harmonizing quietly, eyebrows raised in assessment of the music, and Ragnar joins her halfway through it. It’s steady, and good, and not some aspiring country singer with a cowboy hat and a guitar trying to get on fucking American Idol.
At the end of the song, Ragnar sits up and peers around the tree to see who it is and, after a minute, finds the source of the music leaning against a tree at the other edge of the little park, a banjo case open in front of him and a guitar case on his other side. He’s dark-haired and a little unkempt, about the age to be in college, and he bends over his instrument instead of trying to interact with anyone who’s passing. He either didn’t notice Ragnar and Lagertha singing along, or he doesn’t care.
The next song is something Ragnar doesn’t recognize, and he’s willing to bet it’s an original, something about living by the sea he doesn’t catch all the words of and a refrain in Latin that shouldn’t work with a banjo but does. “Him,” says Lagertha just before the end of it, voicing a thought Ragnar didn’t even realize he was having. “He’s our new opening act.”
“What if he says no?” He can’t say no. His music isn’t much like theirs, which belongs in smoky old bars about to get into brawls even if it started in the same tradition, and he isn’t like Thyri’s earnest Joni Mitchell sound, but he’ll work, and here he is just when they need him. Ragnar isn’t going to dismiss a coincidence.
And, like a sign, when the next song starts, Ragnar recognizes the riff. It sounds strange acoustic, and on a banjo, but he knows it because he wrote it in Floki’s garage years ago, fucking around with a guitar and watching Lagertha tune up an old fiddle. The song is on their album, but they don’t play it much in shows, so it’s a surprise to hear their words across the park, driving down a Western road coming across clear. “What if he says yes?” Lagertha counters, and stands up, holding her hand out expectantly to pull Ragnar to his feet.
The musician doesn’t look up as they walk closer, doesn’t even seem to acknowledge them until he gets to the chorus, voice rising on not going to search for gold, and Lagertha comes in with her harmony, rough-voiced and throaty like always. He doesn’t stop, which is already a good sign—it means he’s a professional, not likely to get thrown off by cheers the way Thyri does—but he does snap to look up at them, wide-eyed. Ragnar smirks and lets Lagertha do the singing, since someone else is already singing his notes, but by the time he meets eyes with the man it’s obvious he’s figured out just who’s jumping in on his cover.
By the time the song ends, there are a few more dollars in the open banjo case and the busker hasn’t stopped staring at them once. When he stops playing and doesn’t seem inclined to start another, Ragnar crouches down in front of him and holds out a hand to shake. “I feel like we’ve finally made it, someone from LA knows our music.”
“I wasn’t trying to get your attention or anything. I didn’t even know you were here.” His face is sunburn red and his eyes are wide, and Ragnar has to resist the urge to laugh at him. “I enjoy your music, that’s all. And I’m not from LA.”
“Where are you from, then?” asks Lagertha, reaching her hand out for Ragnar’s. “Raiding Party isn’t a household name.”
“New York, I was—I’m from New York. But I’ve traveled, I found your album in a store in Kentucky.”
“And now you play in parks?” Lagertha sounds collected, but Ragnar knows how she is when she’s trying to get information, and she’s not going to let the musician free when he’s still staring up at them and squinting like they’re too bright to look at.
He still hasn’t stopped looking embarrassed, and Ragnar wants to pat his head until he looks less confused, but he just squeezes Lagertha’s hand instead. “I make a little extra money this way. I’ve been traveling, and …” He stops, face even redder.
Ragnar steps in. “And you need money to travel more?”
The musician holds his hands up. “I’m not asking for anything, it’s very kind of you both to come say hello after hearing me mangle one of your songs, but I’m not asking for charity. I’m staying in a hostel, I do well enough—”
Lagertha ignores his increasing babble. “What’s your name?”
He blinks up at them. “Athelstan.”
It’s an odd name, but Ragnar isn’t one to throw stones, and Lagertha isn’t either. “Athelstan,” he says, and enjoys the look on his face. “We have something we’d like to discuss with you.”
Athelstan spends the whole walk back to the tour bus asking if they’re joking, and then just muttering objections when they both assure him that they’re completely serious and taking him back to meet their manager now.
“I’m not even a professional musician,” he says, balking as they turn a corner.
“You play music, you get paid, you’re a professional.” Ragnar tries and probably fails to hide a grin.
“My music isn’t at all like yours.”
“It’s close enough that you can cover us without sounding ridiculous.”
They get in earshot of the bus about then, and Athelstan goes silent under the sound of Rollo and Floki shouting about something, Bjorn joining in even though he shouldn’t even be involved. Ragnar picks up his pace and trusts Athelstan to be interested enough to follow, and sure enough he trails along behind while Ragnar and Lagertha get back to the street next to the bus.
Rollo, looming over Haraldson, who looks more smug than intimidated, turns to face them the second he sees them. “Do you know what he did? He’s fucked us all over, that’s what, and he won’t even let us back out of the contract. Ragnar, we should—”
“Who,” Floki interrupts, going from angry to thoughtful in a second and looking over Ragnar’s shoulder, “is that?”
Ragnar knows it’s Athelstan, but he makes a show of turning around to watch him arrive and stand as far away as he can get, instrument cases slung over his shoulder, eyes still wide. He looks maybe seventeen like that, and Ragnar makes a note to figure out how old he is before he drags him off on tour. “Our new opening act, of course.”
Haraldson clears his throat. “That decision goes through me, of course.”
“Of course.” Lagertha ignores Haraldson and looks at Siggy instead, who looks up from trying to get an ice cream stain off of Gyda’s dress. “He’ll audition for you. Won’t you, Athelstan? And then you’ll give him a trial period. And, of course, the band gets a say even if the final decision is yours.”
“I’m not sure I can do this,” says Athelstan, looking around at all of them.
Nobody else looks sure either, although the children at least look interested. Bjorn asks about playing the banjo sometimes, even though he seems happy with the guitar. “Can you play half an hour of music as good as what you were doing in the park, mostly originals?” Ragnar asks.
“I can play half an hour of music, and I do have that much of my own, but I’m still not—”
“On the banjo and the guitar?”
Athelstan is speaking in a sort of shell-shocked autopilot. “And the mandolin, and I play a few others, but I still—”
“You can travel?” asks Lagertha, and gets a nod. “Nowhere to be for the next few months while we finish a tour?” Another nod, this time with a tight jaw, and any other time Ragnar would love to ask about that, but they have to convince everyone. “Don’t mind sleeping on a bus with two children, three men who don’t shower enough, and me?” She jerks her head at Haraldson and Siggy. “They have a camper and follow behind, so you don’t have to worry about them.”
“First, I hear him play,” says Haraldson, frowning, because apparently he wants the band he’s managed for years to fail now that it’s managed to get his daughter what he wants for her. Ragnar rolls his eyes, because an audition isn’t going to be a problem. Not with what he heard in the park. He’s more worried about Athelstan saying no when any other self-respecting musician would be shouting a yes. Ragnar wants him for their opening act, and Lagertha is acting as though she does too, but he isn’t going to force someone who’d rather wander around the parks of LA to come on tour with them.
“Floki? Rollo?” he asks, looking around for support.
Rollo just scowls, but Floki gives a slow, considering nod. “I’ll listen to him.”
Lagertha wraps her hand around Ragnar’s wrist. “Athelstan? Play something.”
“What, right here?” His hand spasms around the handle of his guitar case.
“You were just playing in the park,” Ragnar points out, and then sighs when Athelstan doesn’t look any less alarmed. “Look, we’re not going to kidnap you and drag you across the country if you don’t want to go.” Even if the prospect is tempting. “But it can’t hurt to audition, can it? Not if you don’t have something else to do?”
Something gets to him, through that, and he puts his instruments down on the sidewalk, waiting for the reluctant nod from Haraldson to open up the guitar case and take it out. It’s an old F-hole acoustic, dings showing on a dark finish, and he handles it with care, checking the tuning as he goes and slinging the strap over his shoulder. “What should I play?”
“You should do ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ again,” Lagertha says before Haraldson can interrupt with something the band won’t care about. “And then one of your originals so we know you’ve got more than the one you did in the park.”
Athelstan nods, then bends over his guitar again—no stage presence, Ragnar and Floki will have to fix that—and starts playing. “Wayfaring Stranger” is more energetic when he plays it on the guitar, and Ragnar catches Gyda humming Lagertha’s favorite harmony halfway through and Floki with his eyes closed before the end. Rollo and Haraldson don’t seem as impressed, but he catches Siggy tapping her toes, and her opinion holds weight with both of them, sometimes more than Ragnar’s or Lagertha’s do.
Nobody applauds at the end of the song except a confused passer-by who doesn’t realize that it’s an audition and not a busker happening to stop in front of a tour bus. Athelstan looks up at them, meets everyone’s eyes—maybe not so poor a showman after all, just a different kind than Ragnar is used to—and starts something else slow and steady and a little sad. It would be the perfect bluegrass my-baby-left-me song, and maybe it is, even if he doesn’t mention a particular girl (or boy, Ragnar has his suspicions there). It’s about waiting, and searching, and waiting some more, the kind of music Rollo plays in the middle of the night when they’re on the highway and the children can’t sleep, and it isn’t high-energy, but if Ragnar weren’t certain before, he would be now.
Haraldson is sour-faced, but Siggy’s assessing expression has melted into something thoughtful, Rollo is rolling his eyes instead of glowering, and Floki gives Ragnar a nod when he looks over. Even the children are nodding, and Ragnar already knows where he and Lagertha stand. Still, he waits for Haraldson’s approval; they have to do this by the rules. It’s a long, tense thirty seconds after the second song ends before they get an answer. “When can you be ready to leave? The bus leaves tomorrow morning, and it will leave without you if you aren’t on it.”
“I don’t—I can be ready.” Athelstan is a little shocked, fingering a chord change on his guitar like he can’t help it. “I can be back here tonight, if you like.” When he’s nervous, there’s a hint of England in his voice, of all things. He only gets more interesting with every second rather than less, and Ragnar doesn’t bother biting down his grin. “I don’t have much, just three instrument cases and a duffel bag.”
“You’ll fit right in,” says Ragnar. “Go on, go get your things, tell your friends you’ve been discovered.”
“I’ll have a contract ready for you when you get here.” Haraldson sounds incredibly sour about it, but he still isn’t saying no, and Ragnar will take that. He doesn’t have their best interests in mind, LA has made that clear, and it’s going to be up to the rest of them to get through the rest of the tour without disaster before they figure out how to end the relationship.
Athelstan nods and shakes Haraldson’s hand before picking up his cases and making a hasty retreat. “Welcome to the family,” Lagertha calls after him, sounding amused, and Floki laughs as he disappears around the corner.
A few hours after dinner, Athelstan shows up with the amount of luggage he’d promised—guitar, banjo, mandolin, and a bag of clothing and sundries—and a nervous expression. Lagertha has marshaled Bjorn into clearing off the extra bunk, where all of them have a tendency to dump their things, and he’ll have the slot across from Ragnar and Lagertha’s, where Gyda pinned up an extra sheet to give them a little more privacy—or, more like, Athelstan a little privacy, because after years spent mostly on the road, Ragnar and Lagertha don’t care much about knowing everyone else can hear them fuck.
Ragnar gives him the tour of the bus. It isn’t much, just enough bunks for all of them, creatively organized storage space for all their belongings, and an open area with chairs where they spend a lot of their road time jamming. Floki is communing with the bus, which he loves almost as much as he loves his drum set, Rollo has gone out to a club on their last night in LA, the Haraldsons are taking Thyri out for dinner before they abandon her to live in an apartment with three models and a waitress who might very well kill Thyri for her movie role. Lagertha is with the children in the back, drilling Gyda on pre-algebra and Bjorn on basic geology, since she’s in charge of most of the math in science for the homeschooling.
“We all get pulled into helping with the subjects we know about,” Ragnar says after he’s introduced Athelstan to them properly and registered Gyda’s wary excitement at having someone new around and Bjorn’s open resent (which may have something to do with his crush on Thyri or may just be his general dislike of new people). “I do History, Rollo does English, Floki helps with more advanced math, he was an engineer in a past life. What do you do?”
“Aside from play music?” For the first time, Athelstan is starting to look comfortable, and Ragnar tries to hide how pleased he is about that. “I was good at English, and at History, but you’ve got someone for those. Passable in a few languages.” He hesitates. “World religions, to some extent.”
Ragnar laughs. “You are a liberal arts graduate stranded on a tour bus, aren’t you?”
Athelstan shrugs. “Not a graduate. But anyway, I’ll help where I can.”
“We’ll see what you’re good for,” Ragnar promises. “We’re heading north, up the coast. You’ll be roped into helping by Santa Cruz and fully integrated by the time we swing inland and head for the Oregon border.”
“I should probably get more information about your tour. I looked it up on the computer in the hostel before I checked out, but I want the information from you.”
“It’s going to be brutal,” says Lagertha, coming up behind them and kissing Ragnar on the cheek. “Bjorn says if I make him tell me about tectonic plates one more time he is going to smash his guitar into a wall, I think we’re done with math and science for the night.” Athelstan looks a little alarmed, but she continues talking to him as if she doesn’t notice. “We make a lot of stops, but don’t stay too long in one place. The kids are homeschooled, this is all of our full-time work, though we do tend to spend the winter in South Carolina, because it’s where we got started and we have places to crash there. You’ll be with us for a few months, though hopefully Haraldson’s contract isn’t too draconic and you can leave if you hit a city you want to stay in, we lost a roadie that way once.”
“Fucking Knut,” says Ragnar by rote, and thinks he hears Floki mutter the same thing from the front of the bus.
“If we work well together, and if you want, we may ask you to renew your contract for our next tour, because there will be another. We’re starting to get recognized, which means we play less bars that are barely one step up from dives and more small stages. I imagine you’ll appreciate that.” Athelstan, apparently stunned into silence, nods. “I doubt we’ll ever play Radio City Music Hall, but there are a few radio stations out there playing our music, and that’s more than we expected.”
“It’s far more than I expect,” Athelstan says.
“Good, you won’t get much.” Ragnar grins at him. “Haraldson will tell you all the boring things about pay and taxes, I’d hate to deprive him of that joy, but consider yourself lucky none of us have to pay rent on the bus. We don’t get glamour or glory, but we do get a family, so welcome to it, as dysfunctional as it is.”
“I’m just the opening act.”
“You’ll see how it is,” says Lagertha, and shoves Ragnar off to go make sure Bjorn and Gyda have been doing their studying about the South Pole expedition.
He hears Lagertha talking to Athelstan quietly in the background, but he concentrates on the children instead of on listening in. Later, when he and Lagertha are curled up in their bunk and Athelstan is letting out little noises that aren’t quite snores nearby, he props his chin on her shoulder. “Well?”
“It will work,” she says. “He fits. Only time will tell how well he does.”
The first gig isn’t a disaster, as Ragnar half-expects it to be. He already knows Athelstan can play, and play well, but he doesn’t seem to be used to performing for audiences, judging by his anxious questions during the sound check at the college auditorium they’re playing in, mostly sold out only because bigger bands don’t bother going to the smaller schools with Berkeley and so many other campuses in the area.
Ragnar is a little nervous that Athelstan is going to be eaten alive when he goes out on the stage and only gets dubious, polite applause. He spent most of their traveling time with a notebook and his instruments working out a setlist, and he has all three of them and Lagertha’s backup fiddle on the stage with him, which didn’t endear him to Floki doing the soundchecks or to the techs at the school, but Ragnar still isn’t sure what he’s going to do, so he hovers in the wings of the stage.
Lagertha comes up to stand next to him as Athelstan introduces himself and props her chin on his shoulder. “Just watch,” she says, and it manages to be reassuring.
Athelstan opens on the banjo with a murder ballad, an original or at least one Ragnar hasn’t heard before. It’s darker than Ragnar expects, and about some religious figure centuries ago rather than anything more traditional for the genre (which explains his opening “This one is for all the history majors out there,” the first thing he did that got a genuine cheer from even part of the audience). He spends more time looking at his hand on the neck of the banjo than he does looking at the audience, and he doesn’t move around much, but when he starts tapping his foot almost inaudibly to keep time the tap echoes back against the floor of the uncarpeted auditorium.
When the song finishes, though, he looks up and grins at the applause, shoulders relaxing and head ducking a little with embarrassment, and that’s when Ragnar knows he has them. “This is actually my first time opening for Raiding Party,” Athelstan says while he switches over to the guitar. “Aren’t they great?” Some cheers. “They found me in a park a few days ago and it’s all been a whirl, but I’m glad you’re my first audience.” The accent comes out in his voice again, and Ragnar can almost sense the silent cooing that must be going on. He keeps talking, making a show of checking the tuning on his guitar, which Floki despairs of because he has to retune it almost as often as he has to retune his banjo, and banjos are notorious for that. “So, in honor of that, this is a song about first times—” A loud shout from the audience, and Athelstan shakes his head, lights highlighting how pink his cheeks get. “Not that kind of first time,” he says, and starts the intro.
“See?” says Lagertha, and he turns around to see her smirk. “He’s going to be fine. And he’s offered to look after the children while we’re playing after tonight, because he wants to watch tonight’s show.”
Ragnar grins. “This is going to work.”
He should be in the green room with Rollo and Floki and Haraldson, or checking on the tour bus where Siggy promised to quiz Bjorn and Gyda on Ancient Rome. Instead, he and Lagertha stay for the rest of Athelstan’s set.
By the end of it, the audience is eating out of his hand. He isn’t Elvis, and he isn’t Ragnar, but his blushes and his singing have won them all over, and whenever he bends down to his instrument in the middle of a song to do something difficult many of them sway forward to see what he’s doing. He only cements it when he introduces his last song. “I’m almost done, and there will be a short intermission while Raiding Party sets up on stage and I get out of their way, but I’m going to play one more song first—feel free to sing along if you know it. And it’s my way of thanking Ragnar and Lagertha Lothbrok for giving me a chance. Not to mention all of you.”
Not everyone sings along with “Wayfaring Stranger,” but more than a few do, and Ragnar and Lagertha would if Haraldson didn’t come stomping out to corral them in with Floki and Rollo and give them his usual lecture about expecting a good show and nobody was to fuck a groupie afterwards (with a significant look at Rollo) or do drugs backstage or on stage (with another at Floki) or make out even if the audience asks them to do it (Ragnar is unrepentant).
They hear the applause down the hall, since it’s a small building, and a few minutes later Athelstan is ushered into the green room by one of the building staff, who’s pressing water on him and chattering on while he looks green and ready to fall over. “Good show,” says Ragnar, clapping him on the shoulder before going to get his own guitar, checking the tuning even though it will hold for longer than Athelstan’s.
“You did well,” Lagertha says, and goes about her own last-minute rituals to get ready, checking both of her instruments and her hair, and then everyone’s makeup.
Athelstan follows them out when they go and stands in the wings while Ragnar leads the other three out on stage to the sounds of cheering.
If Ragnar looks at the wings more than he usually does during a show and Lagertha does too, if both of them show off a little more than usual, if Lagertha calls for “and one more cheer for Athelstan, he’s listening in” at the end when she’d never done it for Thyri, well. They’re making him feel welcome. And if Athelstan bites his lip and laughs with embarrassment when he turns down the offer to go out to the student bar to have praise heaped on him after and Ragnar thinks of it later when Lagertha climbs into his lap, that’s nobody else’s business either. Yet.
By the time they reach Oregon, where they have a few days’ rest, it seems as though Athelstan has been with them forever.
He’s still quiet, but he fits into their life on the road easier than Ragnar could have hoped for (even if Lagertha’s constant smugness says he should have expected it). He wakes earlier than almost all of them in the mornings, so he’s the one who usually ends up getting breakfast into Bjorn and Gyda before he does whatever it is he does quietly until Floki and Ragnar’s mandated eleven-in-the-morning-before-noise-is-allowed edict. He jams with them when they jam in the afternoons, and practices almost constantly other than that, crouched on his bunk with a notebook and one of his instruments. When the children practice their music, he joins in, and teaches Gyda how to back up bluegrass music on the cello she’s stumbling her way through learning. He borrows Lagertha’s fiddle and plays very correct classical duets with her, too, which Lagertha doesn’t have the time for most days in between their schooling and the parts of the band’s business she does, not to mention the lack of inclination for it. Bjorn doesn’t warm up to him as much, but they play long elaborate games of hangman with vocabulary words when Athelstan sits in on Rollo’s English classes. He sits in on many of their classes, usually with a book of manuscript paper and a pencil scratching away at it, and helps whoever happens to be teaching at the time, which makes Rollo hate him and Lagertha smile at him and Ragnar gladly turn over half of his teaching to someone who knows more about his subject.
Whenever they happen to spend a Saturday night somewhere in a town and don’t have to leave until later the next day, Athelstan disappears on Sunday morning, presumably to church, but he doesn’t talk about it and none of them ask. When they’re on the road and Floki has a break from driving, sometimes he joins Floki meditating on the floor of the common area. The rest of the time, he and Floki avoid each other, but they’re both protective of the moments they get to snatch like that.
Athelstan warms their audiences up for them in a different way from Thyri, but it fits their energy, and as they work their way north a few people start cheering harder when he first walks on stage, word passing on ahead of them and even the very few who follow them until their gas money or time off runs out. He always blushes, and changes his setlist every night even though it makes Floki and the techs want to tear their hair out, and doesn’t play “Wayfaring Stranger” again after that first night.
Lagertha watches Athelstan, and Ragnar watches Athelstan, and they fuck more than they have since winter, when it was a relief to be back in a bed that was big enough to lay in without touching and that wasn’t within listening distance of anyone else. They had Floki in their bed once, years ago when the band was just starting to take off, before he found Helga in a bar in San Antonio and they started their long-distance whatever-they-have, and Ragnar wonders if it would be at all the same with Athelstan. He thinks not, and he wants to know for sure, but however much he thinks Athelstan wants them too, he’s sure that Athelstan doesn’t know what he’s doing, and Ragnar is nothing if not a strategist. He’s not going to ask until he’ll get a yes.
In the meantime, and almost to his own surprise, he finds himself becoming friends with Athelstan.
“Are you writing a song?” Athelstan asks one night when they’re the only two in the common area after a long show—Floki is somewhere in the woods on the phone with Helga and Ragnar doesn’t ask too many questions, Rollo is somewhere out having drinks bought for him, and Lagertha is in the back of the bus with the children, dealing with one of Gyda’s nightmares.
“We’ll record another album in the winter, but we like trying out other songs first.” Ragnar looks up from his guitar. He doesn’t read music like Athelstan does, so he just scribbles down chord progressions as he goes.
“What’s it about?”
Fucking Athelstan, at least in the abstract. Ragnar grins at him. “A gentleman never tells.”
Lagertha has albums worth of songs that are about her in some shape or fashion, and even this one is partly about her, but it’s mostly Athelstan. He figures it’s only fair, and he has the perhaps overly romantic belief that people know that songs are about them when they hear them. “Her. This tour. You’ll have to wait a few stops on tour and listen to it, maybe one of the nights when we drag the kids up on stage so you don’t have to babysit.” Even though the songs they do with Bjorn and Gyda doing harmonies or playing along are firmly pre-intermission songs and this will be an after-intermission one if he’s ever written one. “What have you been writing about?”
“This tour,” Athelstan parrots, and sits down on a cushion on the floor instead of on a chair, ever-present book of manuscript paper in front of him as he folds his legs up. “Traveling. Whatever is on my mind. I write a lot more than I’ll ever perform, I have done since I first started.”
“When did you start?” Athelstan doesn’t say anything about himself that he doesn’t have to, even when Gyda and Bjorn stoop to badgering him about it or Lagertha asks a gentle question.
“I was fourteen, I think.” Ragnar makes a go-on gesture, scribbling down a line of lyric that he’ll have to edit for obviousness about dark hair. “The music teacher at school told me I should try, so I did. That’s the end of it.”
It’s not, but Ragnar knows enough to pick his battles. “If you write so many extras, you should write for us sometimes. We all write some, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t enjoy doing yours.”
“It’s an honor, but for now I think I’m fine writing for myself.”
“You are doing well.” Ragnar crosses out his last line and searches for something else. “At the rate you’re gaining fans, you’ll need a demo album by the time we get through Colorado. Colorado will love you. I should ask Haraldson if he plans on investing in one next time we pass through a town with a good studio.”
Athelstan looks alarmed again. “An album?”
“Most opening acts do take advantage of the ability to sell them, merch is how a band makes money. We’ll have to arrange it somehow. We’ll all play backup on the tracks where you want it, maybe Bjorn and Gyda will help you with one, they seem to like you.” He revises that statement. “Well, Gyda does, anyway.”
Athelstan laughs. “I don’t see you wanting me around for another tour, I don’t want to be stuck with a thousand copies of an album I’ll never be able to get rid of.”
“We’ll want you around for another tour.” Lagertha never lets go of people she cares about, and Ragnar never leaves people that matter. As long as Athelstan gives even a hint of wanting to stay, he’ll be with them. “So you’ll record a demo album, and then a real one in the winter with the proceeds from the demo, and we’ll see how things go from there.”
“You’re more optimistic about all of this than I am,” says Athelstan, penciling a few notes in on his staff and sketching in words under them. “I still think you’ll be leaving me on the side of the road before we get out of the Pacific Northwest.”
“Never. And I wouldn’t call myself optimistic, just … focused.” I wouldn’t call myself an optimist he scribbles farther down the page, in case it comes in handy for one of the verses, and starts fixing chords again while Athelstan hums something softly over in his corner until Lagertha comes out and press-gangs them both into taking part in some elaborate science experiment she has the children doing.
They play their way through Washington state, finished going north and starting back east on their slow crawl to New York, which is as far east as they’re going this time unless Haraldson arranges them a few new gigs further into New England while they travel. They’re just past the halfway point in their tour, and Athelstan livened it up enough to stay interesting for a while but now all the towns are starting to blur together again, crowds and autographs and sights on the highway. Bjorn and Gyda play endless rounds of road games until Rollo says the next person who punches him at the sight of a VW Beetle is in fact going to get punched back no matter what the rules say. He wouldn’t do it, or Lagertha wouldn’t let him within a hundred yards of the bus, but it stops that particular game in its tracks and leaves them competing over license plates again.
The only things that stay interesting are Athelstan’s sets, because he keeps changing them even though Haraldson looks like he wants to kill him quite frequently. Gyda joins him on stage for the first time in Port Townsend, getting applause from the audience and giving Athelstan someone to play off of, a smart choice all around. Now that she knows the tricks to backing him up, she picks up all his songs at an impressive rate, and it’s rare a show goes by when she doesn’t play at least one or two numbers with him after that.
Ragnar watches almost every set from the wings, unless there’s something urgent to be done, and Lagertha is almost always with him, and goes some nights when he doesn’t. Athelstan looks surprised every time he comes off stage to see them, but it goes from complete shock to pleasant surprise as the towns go by. Even if he’s surprised, he dedicates a song to them every night—usually he says it’s for Raiding Party in general, but a few times he’s slipped and said “Lagertha and Ragnar” and then corrected himself, so Ragnar feels justified in feeling smug and hopeful over it.
Sometime close to the Idaho border or just over it, Athelstan plays a song in the middle of his set, a little melancholy, a little sweet, like a lot of his music, something about watching two people in love that goes just a little farther than admiring their relationship, even if Athelstan himself doesn’t quite realize that. Lagertha’s grin is sharp when she leans into Ragnar’s shoulder during the applause, and Ragnar knows what she’s going to say before she says it. “That one was for us.”
“So we should perform one of ours for him, shouldn’t we? It seems only fair.” And they haven’t changed their set around much since California. Something new, even if only for a show or two, will keep everyone on their toes and give them something to test out for the album they’ll be recording come winter. “I’ve written one or two that we could do pretty easily.”
“I’m sure you have, but no. I’ve got one.” Lagertha doesn’t write songs very often, but when she does, they’re always hits, their most popular downloads on the internet and the most applauded in shows. Usually Ragnar can tell when she’s working on one, but it seems he’s been distracted with Athelstan, or that she’s been leaving Bjorn and Gyda with Athelstan alone more often without him knowing so she can climb into their bunk with her guitar or whatever she’s writing with and make music. “We’ll start practicing it.”
They do, as they dip through Idaho and flirt with the corners of Utah and Wyoming before going into Colorado. They stop for a few days just inside the Colorado borders to rest and spend a few nights in hotels, because Haraldson may be a bastard but he’s one who knows how to keep the band from mutinying in the middle of the tour (or, more likely, Siggy knows). Haraldson is also a bastard who knows how much money Athelstan is starting to make them, though, so during their stop he records a six-track album, just enough to make the money worth it but not enough to hold them up. It’s a bit patchwork, with cover art drawn by Gyda and almost everyone pitching in on at least one track, but it’s merch to sell, and they leave again after a few days with their bus several boxes of CDs heavier.
While Athelstan is in the studio, Lagertha marshals the rest of them into practicing her latest song. Floki just laughs when he hears it and then spends an hour on the phone with Helga laughing more, and Rollo scowls, but they do it, and Ragnar lets Lagertha take the lead vocals and grins as she croons out the words, a lot of “we”s and not a lot of specifying how many that “we” may be. It isn’t just about sex, either, which makes it a little wiser a choice than any of Ragnar’s songs about Athelstan so far.
It’s not time to perform it yet, not quite, but they’ll be ready when the time comes, and in the meantime Ragnar listens for every time Athelstan performs a new song and smiles when it shows even the hint of being about them.
Colorado, as Ragnar expected, loves Athelstan. He’s just scruffy and bashful enough to appeal, and his music gets them clapping. He even gets an encore in a little theater in Boulder, which is the first time he plays “Wayfaring Stranger” with Gyda, whose presence he insists on if he’s going to be encored.
While he seems overwhelmed, Colorado also has the benefit of giving Athelstan a little confidence, and the album has the benefit of giving him a little spending money, which he promptly spends on buying a ukulele from a pawn shop as though he needs another instrument to carry around.
A few days out of Boulder, when they’re stopped for a day by a lake so Floki can commune with nature and Siggy can spend the whole day on Skype with Thyri, who has started filming her movie, Ragnar finds Athelstan sitting by the water, guitar in his lap, playing nothing in particular, and brings his own over as an excuse. “Are you enjoying the tour more than you thought you would?” he asks, settling in and unable to resist playing the riff from Lagertha’s song.
“I never thought I wouldn’t enjoy it. I just doubted my ability to keep up.”
“You seem to be keeping up fine to me.” Ragnar plays a few measures of an old Beatles ballad, and watches the way Athelstan joins in automatically, settling into the chords. “I’m surprised you never toured before. How did you get out to California in the first place?”
Athelstan’s hand pauses on the neck of his guitar, missing the next chord change, and Ragnar stops too. “I was going to go to a seminary out there.” That, Ragnar surmises, explains the continued Sunday morning absences, and the amount of religious music he seems to have in his head, including a whole bunch in Latin that Floki is always mocking him for. “But I turned out to be more interested in music than in preaching.” He shrugs. “It’s not a very interesting story.”
“Everything about you is interesting,” says Lagertha from behind them, and they both startle. She’s wearing her bathing suit, and Athelstan doesn’t seem to know what to do with his eyes. Ragnar leers partially as an example and partially because he and Lagertha have not had nearly enough time to themselves on this tour, but when he looks back Athelstan is looking at his own white knuckles on his guitar. “The two of you were playing ‘And I Love Her,’ you shouldn’t stop on my account. I never mean to interrupt the Beatles.”
Athelstan is never one to turn down a request for music, and Ragnar is never one to turn down a request for the Beatles, especially not from his wife, so they start again. When Ragnar starts singing along, Athelstan gives him a questioning look and joins in at his nod. They don’t sound perfect together, but they do sound good, and Ragnar enjoys passing the verses back and forth as Lagertha wades into the water, sighing in the sunshine and looking too tempting to resist.
As soon as they finish the song, Ragnar puts his guitar down on the grass, strips off his shirt and jeans and puts them over it to cover it from the hot sunlight and runs into the lake after his wife, interrupting her quiet swim with a yell. She’s ready for him, though, nowhere near surprised, and drags him under to kiss him before letting him up just as his lungs start to protest, since he didn’t get a good breath. “He’s watching us,” she whispers when they surface, giving him another kiss and then pushing him over to swim a little ways away. “Come join us, the water’s fine,” she calls to shore, where Athelstan is sitting with his mouth jarred open and his hands loose on his guitar.
“I’m fine, thank you. I don’t have a bathing suit.”
“Neither does he, and if you think all of us in the band haven’t seen each other naked at some point, you’re wrong.” Lagertha grins and gently splashes some water in his direction, nowhere close to getting to him on purpose. No good getting his guitar wet. “You don’t even have to take all your clothes off, come on.”
“Maybe some other time.”
“The water won’t be good for much longer,” says Ragnar.
In answer, Athelstan starts playing something else, and it takes a minute to resolve itself into “Something,” continuing on with the Beatles. Ragnar shrugs and swims around, doing his best to keep within hearing range of Athelstan’s music, and Lagertha does the same, humming quietly along. Athelstan is watching them both while he plays, and Ragnar is pretty sure he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.
Rollo and the children come running out of the woods just as he finishes the song and Ragnar is about to request something else, all three of them screaming and heading for the lake, plunging in with a splash and a mess. Athelstan scoots out of the way and Ragnar loses a few minutes to distraction—apparently his brother and his children have been plotting against him and Lagertha, because there’s quite a battle before Ragnar ends up with Gyda on one shoulder and Bjorn trapped under his arm while Lagertha beats Rollo off with a length of pond weed a few feet away.
By the time Ragnar looks again, Athelstan is out of easy talking range, cross-legged on the grass and absorbed in his instrument in the way that usually means he’s nervous or writing music. Perhaps this time it’s both, Ragnar doesn’t recognize the riff coming across the water right away.
When they get out of the water, Bjorn distracts Athelstan by demanding to know something about the beginning French lesson he gave them the other day, and Ragnar gives up on getting anything else out of him, just picks up his clothes and guitar and wanders back towards the bus. Lagertha is on his heels, wrapped up in a towel and smirking. “It’s a start,” she says when he raises his eyebrows at her in a silent question. “I think he’s starting to get there.”
They speed across the rest of the square states without too many gigs, which Ragnar is glad of. Their second tour, Haraldson had them traveling pretty unendingly through corn field after corn field, and this one has been much more interesting.
It’s still a long stretch of road, and despite the breaks they took in Colorado all of them get snappish. Rollo glares at anyone who comes near him besides Bjorn and Gyda, Floki listens to increasing amounts of metal at increasing volume the whole time he drives, Haraldson never stops looking like he wants to murder them, Siggy never stops looking like she’s thinking about packing up and going back to California to be with Thyri, and Ragnar and Lagertha spend half the day in bed when they aren’t giving lessons.
Athelstan seems to respond to the lethargy that permeates the bus even though they average five over the speed limit by spending even more time with his instruments writing song after song. He blushes whenever he sees Ragnar and Lagertha too soon after one of their sessions of sex. Lagertha smirks about it and Ragnar winks at him, but they don’t make a move. They aren’t scheduled a few days’ break again until Michigan, and Ragnar is starting to wonder if that will be the time. They’ll still have the trip east to New York and south to South Carolina to get through if he says no, but the longer they wait the more Ragnar wonders if Athelstan is going to get scared of what he wants and get off in some nameless city to play in parks, or if he’ll just disappear the second the bus parks for winter.
Lagertha catches his worry, even if he never mentions it, and Lagertha hates being worried, so she’s snappish for days while their tires eat the road up. Normally, Ragnar tries to jolly her out of it, but this time he decides the two of them will just end up commiserating over Athelstan and feeling worse and concentrates on giving Gyda and Bjorn extra history lessons instead, sometimes with Athelstan’s assistance, since he turns out to be very good at history.
In the end, Athelstan is the one to get Lagertha back to herself again. She pokes her head out of the bunks one afternoon when everyone, including the children but excluding Rollo having his turn at the wheel, is having a jam, and is clearly winding up to shout at them to shut up when Athelstan looks up, blowing his hair out of his face. “You must have a headache,” he says, all concern, and then Ragnar is watching, utterly entertained, as he ushers Lagertha back behind the curtain to the bunks.
There’s the sound of running water, quiet conversation, and the rest of them sit out in the common area, all of them hiding grins except for Bjorn, who continues to have something against Athelstan even if he never actually does anything about it but scowl. Ragnar has decided to blame it on Rollo. A few minutes later, there’s even the sound of Lagertha’s laugh and then Athelstan singing softly, some old folk song that Ragnar thinks was on one of his mother’s old records, Joan Baez or Judy Collins.
After that, there’s the sound of someone bustling around, a little more conversation, and then silence. Ragnar is the first one brave enough to go into the back to make sure that Lagertha hasn’t murdered their opening act, and he finds Lagertha asleep on their bunk, curtains open because it’s a hot day and the air inside the bus is still, a wet cloth over her eyes and her hand flung out into mid-air. Athelstan has managed to fall asleep as well, on his own bunk across the way, his curtains open for the first time and facing Lagertha like he fell asleep in the middle of a conversation.
Ragnar does the only thing he can do and puts his head out into the common area to tell them all to keep it down for a while, there is a nap in progress, and then sits on the floor between the two bunks, his feet propped against Athelstan’s bed and his head near Lagertha’s hand, a notebook in his lap. He hums softly to himself and writes a lullaby for the two of them like he used to write lullabies for Bjorn and Gyda years ago. Nobody would ever mistake it for being written about his children, so maybe they’ll never be able to perform it—or maybe they will and damn the consequences, for all they take their children with them on tour they have never claimed to be a family band and their audiences don’t tend to be the stuffy kind.
Lagertha wakes up first, looking a little refreshed, sometime around when Bjorn starts whining from the common area that he’s hungry and sick of all the on-the-road food they have, can’t they stop somewhere? Ragnar only notices when she tugs gently on his hair, and then he turns around and offers her his notebook with a finger on his lips, nodding over at Athelstan, still fast asleep. She hums a little over the lyrics, attaching her own melody to them that dovetails closely with his own, because she knows his writing well enough by now. “It’s good,” she says in a whisper.
“I think so too.” They’re going to write albums worth of music for Athelstan, between the two of them. Ragnar doesn’t mind, and Haraldson can go fuck himself if he does. Haraldson can go fuck himself either way, actually, Ragnar is planning on finding alternate representation when they get back to South Carolina, but this especially he’ll have to keep his nose out of. “Are you feeling better?”
“Yes.” Lagertha’s smile is slow and wicked when he tilts his head to look at her, and she strokes his hair a few more times. “He gave me a little massage for my head. Thought it would help.”
“What do you think?”
Ragnar grins at her. “I think maybe in a few days I’ll have to get a headache of my own.”
Bjorn chooses that moment to poke his head into their area and loudly interrupt. “You’ve been back here forever, and I’m hungry. Floki says he’ll stop the bus next time there’s a good place to eat dinner if you all say yes.”
Athelstan wakes up with a snort that makes Ragnar bite down on a smile and has to have it explained to him a few times before he casts his vote—in favor, because Ragnar and Lagertha both said yes and Bjorn is glaring in a way that promises death to any who disagree with his need for a cheeseburger. They all troop out a few minutes later, Bjorn in triumph, and Floki agrees he’ll stop the next time he sees a sign for something, since they’re on a long stretch of blank highway.
They end up at a Big Boy’s somewhere just over the Illinois border at ten at night, all of them ravenous, and they get yelled at by Haraldson for stopping even though Floki’s driving (and Siggy’s, in their following camper) means they’re consistently ahead of schedule. Ragnar doesn’t care, though, because he’s managed to maneuver the seating so Athelstan is trapped between him and Lagertha on the narrow bench of the booth they’re in and that makes the whole trip worth it as far as he’s concerned.
They spend three days in Chicago, when they get there. They play a small stage at a music festival where they don’t need an opening act, but Ragnar cajoles Athelstan onstage for a few songs anyway, since he’s proved over his time on tour that he knows their music. They play a few small theaters afterwards, with Athelstan back as their opening act, but the music festival dissolves some of those boundaries.
Rollo grumbles (and Haraldson grumbles more), but Ragnar starts trying to bring Athelstan on for a number a night when he’s opening for them, and offers his services as a backup guitar during Athelstan’s sets, which always gets a big cheer from the audience. Lagertha practices a few numbers on her fiddle with Gyda and joins him as well, and slings an arm around Athelstan’s neck whenever she takes a bow and goes back to the green room or the wings to wait for their real set to start. It’s bad etiquette, probably, but Athelstan seems to enjoy it after his initial surprise, and Ragnar isn’t going to stop as long as Athelstan enjoys it.
And Athelstan doesn’t seem likely to get tired of any of it soon, objecting less and less to varying aspects of life on the road and life as an honorary member of the band. He still spends more of his time playing than anything else, but he is more willing to chat with all of them, and he and Siggy strike up an improbable friendship that mostly seems to express itself in gossiping backstage while Raiding Party is doing a set. Ragnar pushes at the boundaries, gets in Athelstan’s space and chats with him, but while he still isn’t open about his past he always seems glad to see Ragnar or Lagertha—or the children, since even Bjorn is starting to warm up to him as they go through northern Indiana and up to Michigan.
They do a few gigs in Michigan, get a few slow meandering days into the state, and then take their week-long break. By this point in the tour, they all need it, and this time is no exception: Rollo rents a car and speeds back to Chicago to spend a few days in the city, Floki hops a plane down to New Mexico and the artists’ retreat Helga is at, Siggy and Haraldson check into the nicest hotel they can find so they can snipe at each other in style, and Ragnar and Lagertha have had a cabin by a lake rented for this week for months now, two bedrooms and thick walls.
Ragnar waits until the last minute to invite Athelstan only because he didn’t realize that Athelstan wouldn’t assume an invitation even with how close he’s become to their family. “You’re welcome to come with us,” he says, deliberately casual.
“I couldn’t interrupt your family vacation.”
Sometimes, Athelstan is stubborn, which Ragnar mostly finds to be a good sign that he won’t be overwhelmed in their loud and strong-opinioned family. This time, it is anything but convenient, because chances are that he may not listen to being told that he is welcome and won’t be interrupting. Lagertha, looking up from telling the children that yes, they do have to pack their school books, she doesn’t care if most children take summers off from school, tilts her head. “And what would you do instead?”
Athelstan shrugs. “Find a hostel, most likely. Busk if I can find a good place for it. Write some songs.”
“No.” Lagertha is firm enough that it brings Athelstan up short when he tries to argue. “This is a vacation and—Bjorn I swear to God, if you forget your math book on purpose I will make you drill the order of operations with your sister for the whole week—you are going to have some fun. You write music all the time anyway, you don’t need to busk when you’re on a very successful tour, and it is unacceptable for you to shut yourself away in a tiny grimy motel room all week. You’re coming with us.”
“It’s a family vacation,” Athelstan says, finding his footing again.
Ragnar, luckily, knows what to do with that. “Good, because you’re part of the family.”
“That’s very kind of you, but you haven’t known me even half a year, and—”
“And we don’t plan to let you out of our grasp for quite some time yet,” says Ragnar. “Pack. You’re only allowed one instrument or we won’t have room in the van we’re renting.”
Bjorn (and Ragnar is going to have to start giving his children an allowance just so he can raise Bjorn’s for this) is the one who settles it, as simple as rolling his eyes and looking up from fishing a book out from under his bed. “Just shut up and come with us, would you? They’ll sulk all week if you don’t.”
Athelstan looks around at all of them, bemused. “They?”
“All three of them. But mostly my parents.”
Ragnar grins, unrepentant. Lagertha smiles and then goes back to doing her packing. Gyda smiles to herself from where she’s drawing something on a sheet of scrap paper, as always the most efficient of them, packed up before they even pulled into the lot where the bus will be locked up all week. Athelstan looks around at all four of them, and Ragnar doesn’t know what he sees, or quite what the expression on his face means, but after a minute he nods slowly. “Okay, fine, I’ll come. When do I need to be ready?”
It’s a two-hour drive to the cabin, most of it through back roads and woods. Ragnar does most of the driving. Athelstan sleeps the whole way in the backseat, mouth open, and Lagertha seems entertained by it, turning around often ostensibly to check on the children (both quietly reading in their seats) but mostly to laugh quietly and shake her head. They have to shake him awake when they get to the cabin, and Ragnar carries most of his things inside over his objections, because he’s still stumbling with tiredness.
There are only two bedrooms in the cabin, and Ragnar doesn’t intend that anyone will be without a bed by the end of the week, but he doesn’t raise an objection when Athelstan claims the couch, since he’s the earliest riser of any of them and should be up by the time anyone wants to sit on it in the morning. When he tries to take his guitar out after they cook dinner with some hastily-bought groceries, though, Ragnar puts his foot down. “You will have all week to play, you can take one night off. We’ll play cards or something, I don’t care, but your fingers are going to fall off one of these days.”
All of them do play cards, and then Bjorn insists on telling ghost stories until Gyda falls asleep, unrattled by all their best stories (and having unnerved even the adults telling a story from Norse mythology that Floki must have taught her on one of the nights when she wakes up and doesn’t want to wake her parents and goes to bother the driver instead), and Ragnar has to carry her to bed. Athelstan is the next one to fall asleep, listing to the side on the couch until his head hits Ragnar’s shoulder, and then Lagertha shoos Bjorn off to bed over his protests that he isn’t tired and he can’t sleep without the bus moving under him.
Ragnar decides he can have patience for one more night and let Athelstan sleep, so he gets off the couch as gently as he can, tugging a blanket over Athelstan and looking down at him as he settles into the space. This isn’t, it’s becoming increasingly clear, going to be just an extra body in their bed, an extra guitar in their jam sessions, something it will be easy to end if it comes to that. “Soon,” says Lagertha from over near the bedroom door.
“It won’t be easy to convince him.”
“But we’ll convince him. That’s what matters, everything else is just details. Now, are you coming to bed? I for one am looking forward to having a real mattress for a week.”
Athelstan stirs in his sleep and Ragnar can’t resist ruffling his hair before he follows Lagertha into the bedroom, joining her on a bed that seems too big when it’s just the two of them on a bed easily twice the size and more of their bunk on the bus. It does feel good to have a mattress, and Ragnar takes full advantage of it, letting Lagertha ride him until they both come, sweaty and exhausted.
They fall asleep curled up tight together, because they never quite get out of the habit these days. There’s more than enough space for a third person, and when Ragnar wakes up to the sound of Athelstan and Gyda making up a song about cooking pancakes out in the main part of the cabin it feels more like Athelstan just got up and left than like he was never there at all.
Ragnar keeps a close eye on Athelstan all that day and into the evening. The children convince him to take a swim and Ragnar joins, unable to resist the temptation. Athelstan laughs when Bjorn and Gyda team up to dunk him and turns bright red when Ragnar accidentally-on-purpose brushes against his naked chest while swimming too close. Lagertha, napping on the deck with a book propped on her chest that she is very obviously not reading, smirks the whole time.
Athelstan insists on cooking dinner, after taking the keys to the mini-van in the late afternoon and somehow finding a local farm willing to sell him produce and meat. Bjorn helps, to everyone else’s surprise, and between the two of them, they put together a good dinner. In the evening, the children relax and watch a movie, and Athelstan takes his guitar out on the deck. Ragnar and Lagertha exchange a look and wait five minutes before they go after him.
He’s playing something soft and pretty, probably one of his originals. Ragnar is starting to recognize what those sound like. He isn’t singing the lyrics, just humming the melody along, and he opens his eyes when a board creaks under Lagertha’s foot. “Didn’t want to watch the movie?” he asks, stilling the strings of his guitar.
“Not really in the mood for aliens tonight,” says Lagertha, and Ragnar nods his agreement and sits on the deck floor near Athelstan’s chair instead of on any of the furniture. “Do you mind if we join you?”
“Not at all.” He nods up at the sky. “I’ve been star-gazing, in between playing. I’d forgotten how many of the constellations I was taught as a child.”
“Astronomy is the only kind of science I ever cared for,” says Ragnar. “We always share that unit with the children, you should join us next time we get around to doing something with it.”
“We have a telescope at the winter house, we keep it in the attic so sub-letters won’t break it.” Lagertha sits down on Athelstan’s other side. “You can stay there with us, if you like. Rent-free, we inherited it from my grandmother.”
“I couldn’t possibly impose.”
“You aren’t imposing. You never are.” Ragnar elbows him in the leg. “Surely you realize that by now. We’ve been chasing after you from the very beginning.”
He sighs, plays a few disjointed chords on his guitar. “There’s a difference between wanting me on your tour and keeping me in your house.”
“Not really.” Lagertha meets Ragnar’s eyes, and when he nods, happy to let her take the lead, she stills Athelstan’s hands and leaves her own covering his. “We said this when we asked you to be our opening act, and we’ll say it again. You’re allowed to say no to whatever you like, but we would appreciate you listening, and considering, before you do it.”
“If you’re that set on my staying with you—”
“I think maybe a few times you’ve suspected that we want you,” says Lagertha, and Athelstan goes silent. “In our lives, in our bed. I hope that you’ve had time to get used to the idea, if you want to be used to it.”
“We gave you the audition and kept you as our opening act because you’re a good musician, and a good fit, but we have wanted you from the beginning.” Ragnar shifts until he can lace his fingers together with theirs. “We know you were going to be a priest, so maybe you don’t want to, and that’s fine, but we think you should know that the option is open, and will be for the foreseeable future.”
There’s a long, long pause. “That isn’t—you have children, can you even—”
He stops, and there are no more words forthcoming. Ragnar, after exchanging a look with Lagertha, fields the question. “Gyda adores you, Bjorn is coming around. They haven’t had the most normal childhood, so don’t worry that you’re going to scar them or something.”
“I can’t do anything casually,” Athelstan says after another minute of gaping, looking between them even though it’s dark and Ragnar doesn’t know what he can read on their faces. “It’s not who I am.”
“Have we led you to believe that this is going to be casual? It won’t be easy, but it certainly won’t be us just spending a night with you and then being finished. The more nights the better, as far as we’re concerned.”
“We’re not asking about casual,” says Lagertha. “We’re asking if you’ll do it at all.”
Athelstan breathes out, hard. “I need time to think about it.” Lagertha is the first to draw back, because Ragnar’s more than willing to admit she’s a better person than he is, but Ragnar goes too when she fits her hand around his shoulder. “That isn’t a no, but I do need time to consider. I haven’t thought about it before, not in a real way.”
“Then have time,” says Ragnar, and stands up. Athelstan follows him with his eyes, tipping his head back. “We’ll leave you be, and know that the invitation is open. You can do whatever you want with it from here.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse us, aliens are trying to take over the world and we may as well watch whoever it is that is trying to stop it this time blow things up.” Lagertha holds out her hand and Ragnar pulls her to her feet and keeps hold of it, noting the way Athelstan’s gaze drops to their hands. Lagertha notices too, judging by the expression on her face, but she just smiles. “Have a good night, Athelstan.”
He clears his throat before he answers, and the words still sound a little strangled. “You too.”
Ragnar listens for him to start playing again as they go back inside, the children meeting their eyes with identical expressions of curiosity, but if Athelstan starts playing again, it’s long after Ragnar puts Bjorn and Gyda to bed and takes Lagertha back to their room.
Athelstan spends the rest of the week at the cabin watching them at every possible moment. Ragnar tries to act as normal as he can despite wanting to do anything he can to convince him, and Lagertha succeeds at seeming just as usual, but he still watches them like enough staring might get him an answer. He sits with his guitar on his lap even more than usual, bent over it and probably writing music given the concentration in his expression, and sometimes looks at a space to one side of Ragnar or Lagertha when they’re sitting or standing together like he’s wondering what he would look like there, which Ragnar decides to take as a good sign.
On their last night, when Bjorn and Gyda are having a nighttime swim with Lagertha watching to make sure they don’t drown themselves, Athelstan comes out to join Ragnar on the deck where he’s fixing a rip in his favorite shirt. For once, he doesn’t have his guitar with him, and he doesn’t say anything when he sits down with a few feet of conspicuous space in between them.
“I don’t know how this kind of thing works,” Athelstan says after a minute or two of silence, which is better than Ragnar was expecting. “It’s not what I was taught is right, but you two care about each other, and I think … I believe that you care about me.”
“We do,” says Ragnar before Athelstan even has a chance to give him a questioning look. That he’s sure on, he and Lagertha both. This is different from having Floki in their bed; Athelstan won’t ever be something brief or easily dismissed. “Do you care about us?”
“You know I do.” Which he does, in that he knows Athelstan likes to watch them, and write songs for them, in that he watches over their children and takes care of Lagertha’s headaches and sits with Ragnar in silence sometimes so they can write music, but Ragnar is the first to admit that sometimes he likes to have things confirmed. “I just don’t know how this works.”
For a second, Ragnar wants to say they should wait to have this conversation until Lagertha is around, but if Athelstan approached him alone, it’s for a reason, even if that reason is only that speaking to both of them at once is intimidating. Chances are he would have been as happy to talk to Lagertha, if she’d been the one out of the water. “It works in whatever way makes us all most comfortable, I would think. We can woo you for a while before you join us in bed, or you can join us from the start. We can tell the children and the others or not. It’s all a matter of what works for us.”
Athelstan taps out a rhythm on the deck railing—music even when he’s making a concerted effort not to hide behind his guitar, and Ragnar can’t help the swell of affection he feels at that. “I haven’t … there was a girl, once, the night after I decided I couldn’t become a priest after all, and I thought it was the thing to do, but I don’t know much.”
“We don’t care.” He wants Lagertha here for this, because Ragnar only knows how to comfort with touch, and he thinks Athelstan wants words. “I can’t make any promises on Lagertha’s behalf, we all have to do this together, but I can say on my own that anything you think you can give is fine.”
“I need a little more time before I know the answer to that. But I do want you to know that I’m thinking about it, and trying to figure out how we can make it work. I think I’d like it to work.” He purses his lips. “I know I’d like it to work.”
“Then we’ll make it work.” Ragnar, at a loss for anything else to do, holds his hand out for Athelstan to shake, and Athelstan shakes it before, surprisingly, holding on to it and leaning in to press his lips against Ragnar’s in something that’s less a kiss and more a quick brush of their mouths, a tiny bit of shared air. When he pulls away, he looks startled, maybe nervous, and Ragnar keeps his tone deliberately light when he speaks. “Lagertha will be jealous.”
Athelstan doesn’t quite smile, but he seems a little more settled at that, like Ragnar managed to say something right. “I’ll have to make sure she has no reason to be. Soon.”
There’s a shriek from down by the water—Bjorn’s, he thinks, followed by Gyda laughing and Lagertha’s half-hearted scolding, and both of them look out towards it even though they can’t see anything but a few moving shapes. Ragnar grins, and looks over to find Athelstan smiling too, ducking his head like he’s trying to keep his amusement secret.
“Maybe we should go join them,” says Ragnar, already standing up and stripping his shirt off. “It’s our last night here, after all.”
When he turns around, Athelstan is staring, but he starts and starts taking off his own shirt when he notices Ragnar looking. “Let’s do it,” he says, and starts down towards the water.
Everyone is loud and happy to see each other when they meet up at the bus the next afternoon, the week off having done a lot of good for everyone’s moods. Floki is smug and sporting a huge hickey on his neck, Rollo is smug and swaggering like he wants them all to know how many women he picked up on his week off, and even Haraldson and Siggy deign to smile at them all when they get back, and Siggy presents Athelstan with a cup of coffee the way he likes it (and with a raised eyebrow that he only meets with a blush, and that’s interesting, Ragnar will have to ask him about that sometime).
Floki, with his usual sense of good timing, waits until Bjorn and Gyda are unpacking and chattering about their week away with Rollo to look between the three of them and ask “So, have you fucked him yet?” a little too loudly.
Siggy looks pained but curious. Haraldson just looks pained. Athelstan looks like he wants the pavement of the parking lot to swallow him up. Lagertha just raises an unimpressed eyebrow, and that leaves Ragnar to answer. “Not yet.”
“Good luck trying it on the bus bunks,” he says, and claps Ragnar on the shoulder before getting on the bus to make sure everything of his is in order.
Athelstan takes the opportunity to flee after one mortified look around at the rest of them, although he probably would have done it soon anyway, since he’s gone a whole week without communing with his banjo and he must be pining for it. Haraldson gives Ragnar and Lagertha a glare. “If you lose me another opening act …”
Lagertha snorts. “And you had nothing at all to do with Thyri leaving for her big Hollywood break, I suppose. We’re being professional.” For a given value of professional, but as long as she can say it with a straight face Ragnar will let her do the talking.
Haraldson blusters a little and they all move on, the Haraldsons back to their camper and Ragnar and Lagertha into the bus, where everyone is unpacking except Athelstan, who is predictably sitting on his bunk fussing with the tuning on his banjo and humming away at something. Lagertha sits down across from him, and when she beckons Ragnar sits next to her. Rollo, although he scowls the whole way, suddenly “remembers” that he left a bag he needs under the bus and enlists the children to go along with him, and Ragnar mouths a thank you as he goes by. Athelstan looks at the two of them like he’s expecting something terrible to happen. “What’s this?”
“We didn’t tell anyone,” Lagertha says. “I just wanted you to know that. Floki guessed—well, they’ve all guessed, most likely—because they know us, but we wouldn’t tell them unless you want us to.”
“Thank you.” He fiddles with one of his tuning pegs. “I want to try it.”
Ragnar knows what he means by the way he ducks his head, but he asks anyway. “Try what?”
“Dating, I think. However one dates two people at once. It’s not what I expected out of my life, but it seems a shame not to give it a try, anyway. When I care about you both so much, and your family, it seems stupid not to try. I wouldn’t be with anyone else, anyway.”
Ragnar wants to kiss him, but he’s already had one, and so when Lagertha leans forward he lets her have the honor. They may as well start equal, until they get to the point where counting kisses would be silly. “We’ll take you out to dinner,” he says while Lagertha gives Athelstan a quick kiss, nothing more than what she gives to Ragnar when she’s leaving him for a few hours. He still looks dazed when she pulls away. “The next time we stop somewhere for more than a few hours.”
“I’d like that.” Athelstan ducks his head and goes back to tuning his banjo.
Rollo and the children come back onto the bus at that point, so Ragnar stands up and helps them with their bags, leaving Lagertha and Athelstan to talk for a few minutes. Lagertha finds him later while Floki puts together a dinner from the freshly-bought groceries in the bus’s refrigerator. “I think,” she whispers, “that it’s about time for us to perform my song.”
“At the next gig, then,” he says, and grins and kisses her, winking at Athelstan when he pulls away to find him watching.
They dip down into Ohio, warming up with a few gigs in college towns before they hit Columbus, and that’s where they sing Lagertha’s song.
It’s one of their best gigs of the tour, all of them glad to be back on a big stage after a week off and a few warm-up gigs. Athelstan has the audience on his side from the very beginning of things, especially once Gyda joins him for a few numbers—and Bjorn, to even his parents’ surprise, comes on for one as well, which they must have practiced at the cabin on one of the afternoons when Ragnar and Lagertha retired to bed and Athelstan took the children down to the lake. He sings the first song about them as well, smiling to himself all through it, and he glances at the wings during the applause, grinning and blushing when Ragnar blows him a kiss.
He closes with a cover of one of the songs they perform less, one Ragnar wrote for Lagertha sometime on their first tour, and surrenders the stage after the most applause he’s had since Colorado. Ragnar catches him on his way by in the wings to kiss him quickly on his forehead, aware of Lagertha doing the same to his cheek, and whispers a quick “Be sure to watch the set, Siggy is looking after the kids” before going to get ready for his own set.
The crowd is still keyed up from Athelstan’s performance when they get out on stage, and Ragnar can’t help enjoying it on his behalf and letting out a loud hoot when Lagertha calls for “One last round of applause for our wonderful opening act, Athelstan, we know you’re listening back there!”
From there, the gig only gets better, and all of them enjoy it. Floki breaks a drumstick in his enthusiasm, Rollo manages to lose his shirt halfway through their set, and Lagertha kisses him filthy and open-mouthed for a few seconds between one of their songs, drawing cheers from the crowd. It’s electric, and Ragnar grins his way through it all, hoping Athelstan is watching.
They save Lagertha’s song for last, only a brief “This is one I’ve been writing recently, I hope you all like it” by way of introduction before she sails into it.
Ohio probably isn’t the right place to sing about a threesome, but the lyrics are subtle and, judging by the way people start singing along on the second chorus, nobody notices. Floki laughs from behind the drumset, even Rollo grins at the enthusiastic crowd not knowing what it’s cheering for, and Ragnar does his best not to look towards the wings in hopes of getting Athelstan’s reaction while Lagertha sings smoky and low. When they finish, they get called for an encore almost immediately.
Ragnar exchanges a look with Lagertha and thinks about performing the lullaby he’s still working on, but it isn’t quite ready and it’s still too obvious for Ohio. Instead, he starts the chords for “Wayfaring Stranger,” waiting for the others to pick it up, and gets a smile from Lagertha as he comes in on the words. Their version isn’t much like Athelstan’s, but it’s still one of his songs, and if he’s still watching he’ll know it’s for him.
Sure enough, when they come offstage after a few more bows, Athelstan is waiting for them, awkward but smiling and hugging back fiercely when Lagertha puts her arms around him. Ragnar joins from the other side, so they have him trapped between them like he hopes they will for many a night. “Thank you,” says Athelstan, barely audible over the sounds of the audience. They’ll have to go out and say hello to everyone like they do after their bigger shows, but Ragnar decides they can have a few minutes’ grace. Rollo and Floki will be enough to appease the fans for a while.
“You wrote one for us,” Lagertha says, pulling back and making a face at her clothes, which are sticking to her with sweat and stage lights. Ragnar is probably just as disgusting, but Athelstan doesn’t seem to mind, so he lingers for another second despite the scandalized looks of the techs who walk by.
“It’s not the only one.” Athelstan is the one who finally pulls away, looking a little sheepish and brushing his clothes off. “It’s just the only one that isn’t too obvious.”
“If you won’t sing them for the crowd, you’ll just have to sing them for us,” says Ragnar, and puts his arm around Athelstan’s shoulders. “Now come on, we’re going to splash some water on ourselves and then we’re going to say hello to all the nice people, and this time you get to come with us. Maybe we can even go somewhere afterwards, since Siggy has Bjorn and Gyda for the night.”
For a second, Ragnar thinks he’ll say no, too shy or overwhelmed or one of a million other reasons, but then Lagertha comes up to his other side and takes his hand and all he does is smile. “I think I’d like that.”
They take him on dates whenever they can all the way across Ohio and into Pennsylvania. Sometimes only one of them can manage to get away, but Ragnar doesn’t think that getting to know Athelstan on their own is a bad thing, so he doesn’t call in too many favors for babysitting. Athelstan seems unsure of it sometimes, but he never says no, and he seems happy, so Ragnar tells himself to be patient, and gets rewarded by Athelstan seeking them out more and more, and feeling comfortable leaning against one or both of them even when the band is around as time goes by. He seems nervous around the children, but Gyda treats him exactly the same and Bjorn just takes to glaring at him for thirty-second intervals of time like he feels the need to protect his parents’ honor.
They have sex for the first time in State College, after a gig where a few too many college girls tried to put their hands on Athelstan during the chatter after the show. It isn’t jealousy (well, Ragnar tells himself that) so much as it is the way Athelstan looks between them bewildered and pleased when they frame him from either side and don’t budge away for the rest of the time they have to stay.
Rollo takes one look at them leaving the venue all tangled together and snorts. “Get a hotel room, or you’ll keep us up all night. I’ll tell the kids where you are and cover for you with Haraldson, we’re heading out at nine.”
“You are an angel among men,” says Ragnar, ruffling Athelstan’s hair when he tries to duck his face into Lagertha’s shoulder in his embarrassment. “I will write you odes.”
Rollo snorts. “You have plenty of people to write songs about. Now get out of here.”
Lagertha is the one who thinks to ask the all-important question, taking Athelstan’s chin in her hand and forcing his eyes up to hers. “Do you want to? Nothing you don’t want, remember.”
Athelstan squares his shoulders but still can’t manage to meet Rollo’s eyes when he addresses him. “We’ll be there in time to leave in the morning,” he says, and it’s the best thing Ragnar has heard in ages, or at least since the night when Athelstan said he wanted to give it a try.
They escape quickly after that, finding the nearest motel and checking in despite the scandalized look from the night clerk, who makes a point of booking them a room with two beds. Ragnar dumps his sweaty concert clothes on the bed they won’t be using in revenge and wanders into the shower. It’s not a very big one, so instead of waiting for the other two he just rinses off and then gets out in time for them to come into the bathroom after him, Lagertha naked and Athelstan trying not to look at either of them and stumbling over everything as a result.
Lagertha steps into the shower after nodding in Athelstan’s direction and widening her eyes in a way that means he probably needs a little bit of coddling, and Ragnar goes to him and starts unbuttoning his shirt. Athelstan tries to help but doesn’t do a very good job of it and ends up with his hands braced on Ragnar’s biceps instead. Ragnar lets him stay there as long as he can before he helps him out of his shirt and then his pants when Athelstan still shows no sign of doing anything under his own steam. He does manage to get his boxers off on his own, looking down at the floor as he kicks them off, and Ragnar makes a show out of looking him over head to foot, lingering on the erection that’s only getting harder with every second. “You should enjoy the shower,” he says, and pushes Athelstan over towards it.
Athelstan goes, and Lagertha reaches for him to pull him under the spray. There’s the sound of a cut-off gasp and then the wet noises of kissing beneath the sounds of the shower. Ragnar sits on the sink counter and watches them through the frosted glass of the shower wall—Lagertha with her hair tied back so she doesn’t have to deal with washing it until morning, Athelstan bent to give his a quick scrub. Lagertha is more interested in washing him than herself, but Ragnar can’t blame her. He’s looking forward to the tour off-season more than he ever has before, because their shower in South Caroline is big enough for three.
They only spend a few minutes, and they come out dripping. Lagertha briskly rubs herself down with a towel and Ragnar indulges himself in giving Athelstan the same treatment, hiding his grin at the blotchy blush on his chest and the way his cock is fully hard now, red and standing out against his pale skin. “Let’s go to the bed,” he says when both of them are dry, and leads the way.
None of them has a plan, so once they’re on the bed, they rest in a confused tangle of limbs for a few minutes, trading kisses and caresses across each other. “We can do more,” says Athelstan after a while, his lips against Ragnar’s collarbone.
Lagertha grins at Ragnar over his head. “Oh? And what should we do? There’s a condom in my pants pocket, for what it’s worth.” Athelstan rolls to look at her, and Ragnar quirks an eyebrow at her unrepentant grin. “You can’t blame me for getting my hopes up. What do you say, Athelstan? Do you want to fuck me? I think getting you and Ragnar to do that may be a little ambitious for a first time, although he’s a good lay.”
“Fifteen years together and two children and that’s what I’m reduced to,” says Ragnar in as tragic a tone as he can muster, climbing out of bed to get the condom and brandishing it in triumph when he manages to pull it out. “What do you say, Athelstan?”
Athelstan probably doesn’t mean to be seductive, throwing a look over his shoulder from where he wound up sprawled on his stomach, but it’s certainly the way it comes across. “You don’t mind?”
“If I minded, you’d think I would have told you so in Michigan the first time you kissed my wife,” says Ragnar, and gets back in bed, fitting easily against Athelstan’s side.
“No, I mean—you don’t mind being left out?”
“Who says we’ll leave him out?” says Lagertha, and rolls Athelstan to his back. “I’m going to ride you, if you don’t mind. It should be easier for you, and that way I’m in charge.” Athelstan shivers, but he nods. Lagertha moves to straddle him, but doesn’t do any more. “Ragnar, do you have any preferences?”
Ragnar grins and lays a hand on Athelstan’s chest, settling on his side so he’ll have a good view. “I’m happy watching.”
“Lazy,” she accuses, but she takes the condom from him and rolls it down over Athelstan’s cock, grinning when he arches up into her. “Watch, join in, whatever you please.”
With that, she sinks down onto Athelstan’s erection with a content noise, and Athelstan moans like he’s dying. Ragnar leaves his hand on his chest and can feel the thump in his pulse. He’s looking up at Lagertha like he’s amazed she even exists, and Ragnar can’t help but kiss him, sneaking in between the two of them to occupy Athelstan’s mouth and move his hand to stroke his jaw. Athelstan is a good kisser—they trained him a little, at first, but he’s taken to it well—but with Lagertha riding him steadily he’s messy, mouth slack, making overwhelmed little sounds into Ragnar’s mouth.
Eventually, he pulls away, says “Lagertha—Lagertha, please,” and Ragnar doesn’t mind because he knows how it feels to have her over him and relentless, and he knows that sometimes the only way to keep from exploding is to kiss her, so he gets out of the way and watches them kiss, Lagertha crashing her mouth down over his hard enough that their lips will be bruised and sore in the morning, as if they already weren’t going to be.
Lagertha has one hand bracing herself and one down between her legs, getting herself off as she grinds down on Athelstan, and Ragnar reaches again, this time to cup her breast, tweak the nipple until she lets out an approving grunt and shifts her hips. The two of them are gorgeous together, everything Ragnar could have imagined, a study in contrasts in every way. “I’m going to write you two fucking albums,” he says, his own voice a surprising rumble, and that’s when Athelstan comes, a sharp jerk of his hips into Lagertha and a high moan.
Ragnar moves in the second that Lagertha pulls away from Athelstan, giving him a second to breathe and pinning his wife down to the bed so he can put his head between her legs and get her off the rest of the way with his mouth. She’s responsive, more than ready for him, and she wraps her fingers in his hair to keep him there, as if he had any intention of moving.
She is, he realizes after a minute, about the time he slides a finger inside her, talking. “—teach you to suck him,” she’s saying when Ragnar realizes it’s in his best interests to tune in. Her voice is steady even though her fingers flex in his hair with everything he does. “Your mouth is a fucking dream, you can spend as much time as you like between our legs. But I want to watch him fuck you, too, and watch you fuck him.” Ragnar gives her a bite on the thigh for that image, which he suspects is going to take longer than he wants to come true, and she just shifts against him. “Another finger. Fuck, Athelstan, he’s almost as good with his fingers as his dick, you’re going to enjoy him.”
He looks up the bed at her just as she tightens around his fingers, coming with a gasp, and meets her eyes before looking at Athelstan, who is staring down at him and the way his mouth and chin are slicked up as he pulls away from Lagertha. “You still haven’t come,” he says, a little distant and shocked.
“You want to help me?” He crawls up the bed, hard enough that it’s on the edge of painful and not caring. “What do you want to do?”
Athelstan is starting to look turned on again, but he doesn’t say anything, just looks between them like he’s hoping for a list of options. “I could blow you,” he offers eventually, sounding a little unsure.
“You could. Do you want to?”
Lagertha whispers something in his ear that Ragnar doesn’t bother to decode. He’s too busy arranging himself on his back, ready for either of them to take care of him when they finish with their moment. “We’ll take care of you together,” Lagertha says finally, with authority, and takes Athelstan’s hand to wrap it with care around Ragnar’s cock.
“Oh, that’s good,” he says, almost by accident, and looks down his body to watch their hands together, Lagertha showing Athelstan how to move even though any man Athelstan’s age should know how to give a satisfying handjob, even if the angle is strange. They both have musicians’ calluses, and it’s easy to tell whose hand is on him even when his eyes slip closed. Athelstan has more calluses, from playing more instruments near-constantly, but his grip is loose, a little tentative. Lagertha is firm—she’s never been one to have mercy, and she murmurs at Athelstan as they go, telling him what Ragnar likes, what she thinks Athelstan will like, what they’ll have to do the next time they’re in a bed.
Ragnar lasts as long as he can, wanting the first time to take as long as he can make it, but he comes when Lagertha removes her hand and comes up the bed to kiss him, the familiarity of her mouth and the newness of Athelstan’s hand combining to surprise the orgasm out of him.
He opens his mouth in time for Athelstan to take a curious taste of the come coating his hand and then make a face like he’s not quite sure how he feels about it. Ragnar laughs, a little drunkenly. “Come up here, I want to kiss you,” he says, and Athelstan comes like it’s instinct, kissing Ragnar and then Lagertha and sliding in between them when they prod him into place, all of them coming down from the peak of adrenaline and arousal.
Athelstan is the first of them to fall asleep, hand clutched in the pillow and head resting against Ragnar’s chest. Ragnar smirks at Lagertha only to find her smirking back. “I think that worked out well,” she whispers, and she could mean anything from the sex to the concert to asking Athelstan to be their opening act in the first place.
The answer is the same no matter what. “It did.”
Pennsylvania and New York blend together into a haze of concerts and kisses. They have the children to look after, no matter what new relationships they’re embarking on, so they don’t get hotel rooms, just snatch time in whatever combinations they can—Athelstan and Lagertha kissing in the back room, Lagertha sitting on Ragnar’s lap strumming his guitar while he fingers the chords in the common room, Ragnar and Athelstan spending afternoons in the bunk getting used to each other’s bodies. It becomes old news to everyone but Haraldson after a while, even Bjorn and Rollo just giving a token roll of the eyes when all three of them sit in a pile in the evenings as well as they can.
Athelstan sells out of albums in Buffalo, and Raiding Party is low on merchandise by the time they get to Albany, their last New York stop. They’ve done the city before, but Haraldson decided against it for this tour (yet another reason why Ragnar is going to replace him. If he could get Siggy without her husband, that would be one thing, but another year of touring with Haraldson isn’t an appealing prospect), so after Albany they turn and start working their way south.
It’s the last leg of the journey, so they only do enough gigs to be worth the gas money as they head for South Carolina. Mostly, Ragnar spends his time planning, though it’s nothing formed enough to tell the others about. He thinks about taking a year off from doing big tours to record a Lothbrok Family album, with Athelstan of course, getting back a little closer to their bluegrass roots, and then doing the festival circuit. Floki is always talking about taking time off to spend with Helga and maybe training to be a luthier since he doesn’t play the guitar but is fascinated by them anyway, and Rollo can either join the family band or do what he pleases.
If everyone says yes, it’s a good next step. Raiding Party won’t ever be done forever, but a year off might do them all good, after years of being on tour together most of the year at close quarters in the bus. On top of that, it’s time to get to know Athelstan, to adopt him into the life they’re used to and let him see their relationship isn’t just something for the road.
The bus rolls into their South Carolina town at eleven PM on a nondescript late October night. They park it in the garage that they use as winter storage, waving off Haraldson and Siggy as they drive directly to their house—Thyri’s movie finished filming a week or so again and she’s at home to open the house up for her parents. Nobody bothers getting more than the barest essentials off the bus, just a few changes of clothing, phones, and in Athelstan’s case his instruments.
He almost balks when Ragnar drives their van out of the garage nearby (he’s thankful it starts, he’s got friends who take it out a few times a month to keep it from dying but more than once he’s come home from tour late at night to find it won’t move), looking around like a hotel will spring out of the ground, but Gyda grabs his banjo case, which is nearly as big as she is, and laces their fingers together, telling him all about their house and how there are only three bedrooms, but it’s okay, nobody will care if Athelstan shares with her parents.
(Some people will care, but Ragnar and Lagertha said “fuck you” to all of them years ago and went off to start a rock band, so it doesn’t really make a difference.)
Gyda’s chatter gets Athelstan to relax, and they all pile into the van like they did in Michigan and drive through the streets, Bjorn and Gyda both pointing out all their favorite sights around town with excitement, even if there aren’t very many of them. Their house is on the outskirts, on the opposite side of town from the warehouse they rent space in, and by the time they get there they’re all drooping. It isn’t large, but it is theirs, and Ragnar never minds traveling but there’s nothing quite like having a home to come back to.
Everyone stumbles inside, dropping things all over the place and turning on lights to give everything a cursory look-over. Their last tenants must have been polite, because it’s pristine, everything exactly where it should be. Ragnar puts the few groceries they grabbed with their clothes into the fridge in the kitchen so they have breakfast while Lagertha and Athelstan get the kids to bed, both of them objecting all the way that they want to see all their things and take a bath and anything else to put off bedtime.
They make it downstairs looking like even that effort was equivalent of going through a war, and Ragnar herds them right back up the stairs again, turning off lights as he goes. The bedroom is a haven, massive bed with fresh sheets and curtains pulled over the windows so they won’t be woken before some combination of their parents comes over in the morning—they’ll have to explain Athelstan, but their parents will probably take that in stride after everything Ragnar and Lagertha have done over the years. Ragnar strips his clothes off and claims the spot in the middle mostly by virtue of falling on top of it.
Athelstan is the one who manages to wiggle the covers out from under him, since Lagertha is opening the window to let a fall breeze in. He hesitates again before he gets in the bed, but luckily he’s easily persuaded by Ragnar grabbing onto his hand and tugging while frowning blearily up at him. Lagertha’s there a second later, somehow already changed into one of the nightgowns she keeps in their dresser at home that she never bothers wearing on the bus since they aren’t practical, and the two of them curl up on either side of Ragnar, Athelstan on his stomach since he sleeps better that way and Lagertha with as many of her limbs wrapped around the two of them as she can manage, taking advantage of a bed big enough to take all of them.
It’s the best welcome home Ragnar has had in years, even if it’s just as much a welcome home for Lagertha, and hopefully one for Athelstan as well, for all the work they still have to do there. For the first time, he falls asleep plotting how to stay in town a little longer instead of how to get out as soon as possible.
In the morning, he wakes up to the smell of coffee wafting up the stairs and Lagertha smirking down at him, wearing one of his old flannel shirts over her nightgown. “You should come and see,” she says, and leaves before he can ask what he’s supposed to be seeing.
Downstairs, Athelstan is making pancakes—who knows where he got the ingredients—and humming snippets of songs. He looks at home, more settled than he ever is unless he’s been exhausted with sex, and he smiles when he looks up to see Ragnar and Lagertha in the doorway. “Bjorn is on the phone with one set of grandparents and Gyda is on with the other,” he says like it’s an explanation. “I think they’re both on their way over, so I thought breakfast food might make things go a little easier.”
Ragnar crosses the kitchen to kiss him because he can’t not, and Athelstan leans into it until he has to rescue one of the pancakes from burning. He doesn’t say “I love you,” but it’s on the tip of his tongue, and he’s only a little surprised about the words occurring to him at all. After a second more of watching, wondering if he’s going to be treated to this sight whenever he’s at home for a stretch of time, Ragnar starts helping, flipping pancakes with the skill of any father who had to learn to show off for his offspring and leaving Athelstan to mix the batter up.
Another minute and Lagertha is with them, hands cupped around a mug of coffee but leaning into their space to watch them cook. Athelstan kisses her good morning as well before concentrating on what he’s doing, humming under his breath. It takes Ragnar too long to recognize it as the first song he heard Athelstan singing in the park in LA, and he only makes the time to exchange grins with Lagertha before kissing Athelstan again, more thoroughly than just a good-morning.
No one will mind if the pancakes are a little burned.